To the Passengers on Flight 2110, From the Woman Wearing a Face Mask
Dear passengers of Flight 2110,
You saw me and I saw you, too. We were traveling from San Antonio to Los Angeles and it was a late afternoon. Remember? I was with my mom and she was trying to help me with my carry-on, but I was arguing with her that I could carry it. My mom is always trying to help me because she worries a lot about me when we are traveling, and that day she knew I was hurting. I was the passenger wearing a face mask, like one of those masks a doctor wears when going into surgery.
I should tell you a little about why I was on that flight. My mom’s family lives in San Antonio. It was a quick trip and sort of a sad trip since my mom and I were in San Antonio to celebrate the life of my grandmother. The woman I consider my grandmother is not my biological grandmother; she entered my life when she began a relationship with my grandfather when I was in second grade. Well, she got her wings early this summer. My mom and I could not travel to San Antonio to be with our family when she left this earth because I had just started new medication and wasn’t in a great place to leave my medical team. So, we planned this trip to visit her final resting place and visit family.
It takes a lot for a chronic illness and chronic pain patient to travel. Maybe you saw the big bag of medication in my carry-on. Now, I know you tried not to stare at me with that mask on. But several children stared. Children are the best in this awkward moment because they will stare and they won’t turn away. They notice me as different. When your child asks you why I am wearing “that thing on her face,” you shush them. You don’t have to be embarrassed, you can tell them I’m sick because that is what you interpret a mask to indicate.
I am very aware I look different from the other passengers. I would really rather not stand out, but at this moment I have no choice. The truth is that I really wish I didn’t have to wear this mask at all. It makes me feel self-conscious and judged. Also, to be honest, it is not comfortable, and it is hot and annoying.
I have an autoimmune disease called rheumatoid arthritis which means I have an overactive immune system. The way my RA is treated is with medications that suppress the immune system. There is no cure. Because I take medications to suppress my immune system, it leaves me susceptible to illness. My immune system isn’t like yours – mine doesn’t protect me. And because of my medications, I can get really sick, really quickly. Also, when I get sick I have to stop my RA medications, which means I will most likely go into a RA flare. A flare means my disease is not controlled and it isn’t just painful but it can also be deadly. So I wear this mask when I am on a plane so I don’t pick up any viruses around me.
This all brings me to the moment you all noticed me. My mom and I boarded the plane before most of you as we bought the Early Bird boarding. As we sat down we heard an announcement: “This flight will be a nearly full flight.” Hearing that, I scooted towards my mom who was sitting at the window seat, and I sat in the middle seat. She started to worry, knowing I would need to get up to move around mid-flight. I told her not to worry. I told her people would walk right by us. This is the story of my life when I travel. You all pretend not to notice my mask because you want no part of what you think I have.
You all passed by the empty aisle seat next to me, every single person that boarded the plane. Then the announcement came over the loudspeaker: “We are down to all middle seats, please grab the first one you see.” You all continued to look at that empty aisle seat next to me but as soon as you saw the mask on my face you walked right by it. And when the very last man boarded the plane, he looked at empty aisle seat next to me and decided it would be better to be cramped in the middle seat 2 rows up. And that was it. The cabin doors closed.
I sat there with an empty aisle seat next to me and the flight was nearly full. I moved back to the aisle and my mom confusedly asked me, “What just happened?” My reply to her was, “This happens every flight. People would rather be uncomfortable in a middle seat than sit next to a woman in a mask.” You see, I know you are all scared you may “catch” what I have, but you can’t catch what I have because autoimmune disease is not contagious. My mask is to protect me so I don’t catch what you have.
If you had sat next to me, I probably would have volunteered to you, “Hey, don’t worry, I’m not sick, I just don’t have an immune system.” In fact, I may have bought you a drink if you sat next to me. It would have been the least I could have done since you were brave enough to sit next to a woman in mask. But, you didn’t. You walked right by me and you tried not to look. I’m sorry I made you feel uncomfortable.
But I wanted to write this letter so next time you board a flight and see me, you will know why I wear that face mask. Maybe you can be brave and I’ll promise to be on my best behavior.
The masked woman in row 6, aisle seat.
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Thinkstock photo via AwaylGl.